Stop Resenting, Start Understanding: Approaching Prejudiced Asian Parents about Race
By Priscilla Kim
Following the death of George Floyd, those demanding justice sparked a wave of public protests, social activism, and intervening mobilization. Unfortunately, Floyd’s case is not an anomaly, and the number of stories like his highlights how pervasive racism is within our law enforcement and America as a whole. You may be thinking, what do I, a second-generation Asian-American high schooler, have to do with this? Why do I care? Well, quite frankly, racism is an issue that must be confronted by everyone who lives in a system that perpetuates it. And America is such a system. I have listened to many of my Asian-American friends and peers here in the Bay Area express their woes regarding explaining, oftentimes unsuccessfully, systemic racism in the United States to their first-generation Asian-American parents — many of whom hold internalized racist views. Trying to explain exactly why we care about this issue of anti-Blackness and racism among the police can be mentally and emotionally draining due to frequent verbal microaggressions that can take place in these conversations, failure to reach a point of agreement or understanding, and parents who refuse to change their racist preconceptions. So, how exactly do we approach conservative first-gen Asian parents in a time of Black Lives Matter? My purpose is not to discourage you from talking about racism to your parents — by all means, please do — but instead to alter your approach and line of attack when discussing racism, by realizing our immigrant parents see America through a very different lens than we do.
Before trying to explain anti-Black racism to your parents, or maybe after multiple failed attempts, try recognizing their background as first-gen immigrants. Herein lies possible answers as to why they’re being so unreceptive. After all, in order to combat prejudice, we must first understand the who, where, and why behind it. First off, the majority of countries in Asia are vastly racially homogeneous, meaning that most of our parents didn’t grow up with the same level of racial diversity that we have known our entire lives being raised in the Bay Area. Not encountering people of different races during the formative years of childhood can do a lot in shaping our parents’ worldviews and perspectives on other races. It is important to realize that although many Asian countries do have numerous ethnic groups, that is not the same as having different races; ethnic groups in one region are typically of common descent.
Moreover, the mindset of the immigrant is powerful because of the idea that anything in America is bearable as long as it’s not equivalent to the suffering, hardship, and inopportunity they’re leaving behind at home. This perfect, idealized version of America and the view of it as the “promised land” prevents many immigrants from being harshly critical of America’s grave problems. Many of our parents have held on to the promise of the American Dream and sacrificed everything to get here, so confronting them with the fact that America is not entirely a place of nondiscriminatory upward social mobility can be discomforting to hear, hard to accept, and maybe even at first unfathomable. It seems as though such a notion would shatter the very ethos of the American Dream, the shining, attractive idea that if you work hard, you will succeed, regardless of the class you were born into.
Sometimes, first-gen parents will diminish the hardships experienced by others by invoking their own instances of suffering, as the mom of one of my close friends continuously does. “If I can deal with racism, they can deal with it.” “Well, everyone goes through hardships in life and we have to overcome those.” However, pain is never relative, and it is not a competition. Overlooking systemic racism often causes parents to fall into the trap of believing in harmful negative stereotypes like “Black and Hispanic people aren’t successful because they don’t work hard enough” or “all poor people are lazy.” This thinking is so dangerous because it allows our parents to turn a blind eye to the reality that the American Dream has failed far too many Americans, particularly those of Black and Brown communities. A timely example of this is the disproportionate impact that coronavirus has had on these populations. The CDC, a national public health institute and US federal agency, finds that as of June 12th of this year, Black persons have had a hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons and Latino persons 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons (CDC). As the CDC states, “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put… racial… minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age” (CDC). Such disparity serves as both a reminder and exposé of the all too real consequences caused by systemic racism in the form of unequal access to healthcare.
Another reason for our parent’s indifference or unwillingness to listen to this stark reality relates to their immigrant position again. When they first immigrated to the US, many struggled to make ends meet in a foreign environment where they, not knowing English, faced language barriers, navigated unfamiliar customs, and lacked support systems. Consequently, race issues affecting Black people were most likely not among their biggest concerns. A lot of them didn’t have the framework or even the permission to be able to think about race and power structures in the way that many of us can. Overcoming these structural barriers was necessary to the survival of our then newly immigrated parents in a way that is not nearly as immediate to us — at least, to those of us who have grown up in America, speaking and hearing English on a daily basis and being familiar with American culture. It is our privilege as members of the second-generation to be able to think about and talk about and write about and care about and advocate for these issues.
Resenting and growing frustrated isn’t going to do anything. Instead, try to approach your parents from a point of understanding and objectivity while acknowledging your position of privilege (if you’re in one, of course), which will help them be more open and responsive to what you’re saying. Engage in these difficult conversations, work to dismantle racist stereotypes, educate those around you like your parents. These are all things I urge you to do. But as you are doing so, I also encourage you to keep in mind how crucial it is to recognize our parents’ viewpoints. Now more than ever we need unity in our country, and the first step to achieving this is through empathy and understanding. So, I challenge you to make a genuine attempt to see your parents’ perspectives and to find the humility and courage to understand them before blindly growing bitter and upset.
N/A. “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.